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After sharp words, Hillsborough School Board members seek to mend fences

Differences are aired at a board retreat as the district enters a challenging time.
Hillsborough County School Board Chairwoman Lynn Gray, standing, addresses the rest of the board at a retreat Wednesday in Plant City.
Hillsborough County School Board Chairwoman Lynn Gray, standing, addresses the rest of the board at a retreat Wednesday in Plant City. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times ]
Published Mar. 3
Updated Mar. 3

PLANT CITY — Faced with daunting challenges that will likely lead to school staff cuts and program changes, members of the Hillsborough County School Board spent Wednesday afternoon trying to learn how to get along.

During a retreat, they reached a breakthrough of sorts about 2:30 p.m. Board members Melissa Snively and Jessica Vaughn were revisiting a February news story in which Snively suggested Vaughn and member Nadia Combs had violated the state when they arranged a special “member-to-member” meeting.

There was a moment when Snively and Vaughn talked about their attempt to resolve the dispute afterwards, with an attorney. The conversation degenerated into which member should have changed her schedule for the other.

At that point, Carol Cook of the Florida School Boards Association cut them off, saying they were being disrespectful. Cook, a long-time Pinellas County School Board member, had been brought in to facilitate the meeting and advise her Hillsborough colleagues.

“Neither of you is listening to the other,” she told Snively and Vaughn.

Soon after, Snively apologized for her allegation about breaking state law. In her defense, she said, she had perceived that Combs and Vaughn felt superior to the rest of the board. But, she said, she later realized she did not treat the two as she would want to be treated.

“I broke the golden rule,” she said, and Vaughn accepted her apology.

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Related: Factions emerge, again, on the Hillsborough County School Board

The seven-member board is trying to navigate what could be a difficult spring as the district works to cut costs and avoid a feared state takeover.

But the adjustment, for Combs and Vaughn, has been difficult since they were elected in November.

After they took the unusual step on Feb. 25 of holding the member-to-member meeting, they received a lengthy email from a deputy superintendent that was, in Vaughn’s opinion, misleading and insulting.

Cook cautioned the Hillsborough board members that disharmony among them, or between the board and administration, has far-reaching consequences.

“The community needs to be able to trust you,” she said, adding that research shows that “a connection exists between the work of school boards and student achievement.”

They discussed some of the finer points of school district governance: How many topics to tackle in a workshop, how many emails the superintendent should have to answer after the workshop, and the difference between debating and deliberating.

In a session later with superintendent Addison Davis, they went deeper into issues such as where they should go to have their questions answered and how to boost Davis’ and the district’s public profile.

The full board will meet next on March 9.